The unorthodox selection of Bob Dylan as the 2016 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature was bound to cause controversy. He became the first American to win the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993 and, more significantly, he became the first songwriter, from any country, to win it ever.
Although there had been a quiet groundswell for Dylan-as-Nobelist over the years—supported in part by the University academics who teach his lyrics in their classrooms—many within the literary community squirmed. What about Philip Roth? What about Don DeLillo? What about …? The novelist Irvine Welsh derided the Dylan selection as an “ill-conceived nostalgia award.” The poet Natalie Diaz wondered why the late Bob Marley never got considered. Some writers groused about ancillary things: Dylan is rich and famous enough already! He doesn’t need it! Or, Song lyrics aren’t really literature! More than one writer suggested that Dylan follow the path of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who in 1964 was awarded the Nobel but refused to accept it.
Yet many others, indeed the heavy bulk of the public comments that came in, were thrilled at the choice—both in admiration of Dylan’s writing and also because the committee had shown a willingness to buck tradition and test institutional bias. At the vaunted Swedish Academy the times are a-changing. “The frontiers of literature keep widening,” Salman Rushdie told Britain’s Guardian while lauding Dylan as a personal inspiration. “It’s exciting that the Nobel Prize recognizes that.” Billy Collins, America’s former poet laureate, gave his blessing to Dylan’s Nobel. Songwriters cheered for one of the own. (“Holy mother of god,” wrote Rosanne Cash.) Barack Obama tweeted congratulations.
Dylan stood by impassively, letting all the fuss blow in the wind. He didn’t bother to respond to the Academy’s call informing him of their choice. (“Impolite and arrogant,” a committee member griped.) He played concerts in Las Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, El Paso and Tulsa—at 75, Dylan is perpetually on tour; he’ll play four or five nights a week—without mentioning the Nobel to the crowd. A note acknowledging he’d won the award went up as a short aside on his website but then was taken down. Weeks went by before Dylan said anything publicly at all. When he finally did, he allowed to a newspaper reporter would attend the award ceremony, “If at all possible.” Later he said he didn’t think he’d make it there after all.
Dylan being Dylan.
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According to the official release, Dylan was named literature’s 113th Nobel laureate for, “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, Sara Danius, later compared Dylan to Homer and Sappho—whose centuries-old poems were intended to be accompanied by music—and she said that reaching the decision had not been difficult. “We’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet—that’s the reason we awarded him the prize,” Danius said. “He’s a great poet in the great English tradition, stretching from Milton and Blake onward. And he’s a very interesting traditionalist in a highly original way. Not just the written one but also the oral one, not just high literature but also low literature.”
High or low, literature — or rather what we might mean by it—is not easy to define. Merriam Webster has it simply as: “written works that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance,” a measure by which the writing not only of Bob Dylan, William Faulkner, Alice Munro and every other laureate clearly qualify but also such works as say, the Guinness Book of World Records, Mad magazine, or the 2017 Chevy Impala owner’s manual. Perhaps then, we mean something else by literature, something about texts that communicate implicitly as well as explicitly, that find a way to say things that might otherwise not be said, that have, at their center, a conscience. The will of Arthur Nobel, the Swedish philanthropist who set up the whole Nobel enterprise, decrees that the literature prize go to someone who produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The type of works considered, Nobel’s will says, should be ”not only belles lettres but other writings which, by virtue of their form and style possess literary value.”
Whether heard in song or read on the page, Dylan’s lyrics clearly contain many of the distinguishing qualities of great poems and novels. They’re hewn to engaging narratives. They’re often allegorical and often richly emotional. They reveal themselves more fully over sustained analysis (hence the college courses). Dylan’s work is often political, of course, though rarely strident. It’s hard to imagine a writer of English listening attentively to Dylan’s lyrics without being impacted by the language, the structure and the content. They are words that stand the test of time.
The list of Nobel laureates is hardly definitive. (Tolstoy never won it. Pearl S. Buck did.) But many of the giants are there. And the imprimatur of the prize is on a scale of its own. In declining the award Sartre spoke of the impact that it would have had upon how he was perceived. ”If I sign my name Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign my name Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prize winner.” He added, “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.” In the case of Dylan, who gained his audience partly by pricking the establishment and now, perhaps in spite of himself, has become a part of it, Sartre’s is not an irrelevant concern.
The Nobel Prize, for all its momentous heft will never outweigh Dylan’s true accomplishment. His powerful, beautiful, transformative and unforgettable songs helped to spur righteousness through the heart of the civil rights movement. Dylan’s words were sung by marchers on the road from Selma to Montgomery. They were sung as preamble to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. That impact remains Bob Dylan’s noblest mark. The 2016 Nobel Prize is simply the crowning achievement of an extraordinary life.